Children, Adolescents & Grief ~
had many of the experiences life has to offer, nor are they cognitively
able to understand death as we [adults] do. Thus they grieve without the
same level of comprehension of what is happening to them, for they have
not had the experience of the finality that accompanies someone’s death.
The Grieving Child
Children's losses are often invalidated with
many incorrectly believing that they are too young to experience loss or
a grief response. Children and adolescents react differently to death,
loss and traumatic events because they have not had many of the life experiences
of adults. They will express their grief in a variety of ways and may even
appear to be unaffected by the death. Because children and teens grieve
differently than adults, their needs, especially support through the grieving
process, are often overlooked. Consequently, children and teens are frequently
forgotten, even invalidated, as mourners.
Reactions to loss & death depend on where
a child or adolescent is developmentally. Young children (preschool) have
problems understanding that death is not a temporary, reversible event;
this belief is reinforced by movies, cartoons and television. Older children
(5 - 9) begin to experience grief more like adults and have a better understanding
of death as a permanent state, but they still believe that death will not
happen to them or any of their loved ones.
A child's first experience with death is often
the death of a pet. Children also can encounter the death of grandparents, parents, siblings, teachers,
friends and schoolmates. Even without experiencing death firsthand, children
and adolescents are exposed to loss, dying, death and grief merely by living--whether
it is listening to music, playing games, or watching television or movies.
Children may face other losses through divorce, relocation or even with
growing-up. As children age they must adapt to many different losses including
the loss of childhood, loss of friendships, loss of identity, loss of roles,
loss of self-esteem. Unfortunately, with the emphasis on growing up so
soon now, children often face a loss of innocence.
A loss, crisis, significant life change or death,
particularly if sudden, tragic or unexpected may precipitate a grief response
that can overwhelm an adult's normal ability to cope. This can be manifest
as an unavailability to support children emotionally or even carry out
their normal child care responsibilities. Children, especially the young,
have a sixth sense that enables them to sense an adult's fear and anxiety.
As adults struggle to deal with their responses and grief, they must remember
that children and adolescents will turn to them for help. It is important
to remember that children learn their responses to loss and how they will
cope from their family.
Children's Reactions are Dependent on Many
During times of loss children turn to their parents,
their teachers and other trusted adults for help, answers and guidance.
Parents and teachers can help children and young adults avoid or overcome
emotional reactions that may result following a tragedy by creating and
open environment, being there ready to listen and answer questions and
providing support. Being comfortable with discussing the death, or events
with children is important. (See "How to Talk to
Children") How a parent or other adult react to a child following
a loss, death or any traumatic event can aid (or hinder) in his/her recovery
Children's response to a loss, death or tragedy
depends upon many different factors.
Normal, Common Grief Responses in Children &
The cause and type of death, event or tragedy.
The child's age, sex and developmental stage.
The nature of the relationship to the lost object.
The manner in which the child is informed of the
How well the child is prepared for the death, if
The child's mental health prior to the loss or death.
The reality, honesty and scope of the information
given to the child.
The openness of the environment to allow and promote
discussion of the topic.
The nature and availability of a support system.
Parents, family and other significant adult's ability
to acknowledge and role model grieving.
The child's self-esteem.
The availability of a stable household and/or adults.
The families ability to adjust to the loss and keep
Familial support, understanding and acknowledgment
of the child's emotions—anger, fear, sadness, guilt and depression.
Parents, caregivers, teachers and other adults
that are dealing with children, should be aware of what are considered
to be normal childhood grief responses responses, the age appropriate response,
as well as signs that a child may be having difficulty coping with the
loss or death. Child and adolescent psychiatrists report it is normal during
the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate grief
or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. However,
long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally
unhealthy and can later lead to more severe problems. Knowing what is outside
the range of the normal grief response makes it easier to determine when
it is time to seek professional help. (See "When
to Seek Professional Help")
Some common ways children might respond to a death
or loss include:
Denial, shock and confusion
At the person who died.
At the surviving parent.
At doctors and nurses for not saving the life of
the person who died.
At God, self and life.
Inability to sleep
Loss of appetite
Of being alone.
That the other parent will die.
That they will die.
Of hospitals and doctors.
Of getting lose to others who might die.
Physical complaints such as stomachaches and headaches
Loss of concentration
Over failure to prevent the loss.
That they caused the sickness, illness, tragedy or
That they could not save the person from dying.
That they are having fun while someone else is sick,
dead or dying.
Depression or a loss of interest in daily activities
Acting much younger for an extended period or reverting
to earlier behaviors (e.g., bedwetting, “baby talk” or thumb-sucking)
Withdrawal from friends and activities.
Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend
Excessively imitating or asking questions about the
deceased or making repeated statements of wanting to join the deceased.
Yearning and pining for the deceased.
Difficulty or unwillingness to talk about the events
or the deceased.
Inventing games about dying.
Searching for the dead person.
Profound emotional reactions (e.g., anxiety attacks,
chronic fatigue or thoughts of suicide)
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 8. Children and Grief. Updated November 1998. Available
National Mental Health Association.
Helping Children Cope With Loss. 2001. Available at: http://www.nmha.org/reassurance/childcoping.cfm.
Doka KJ, ed. Living with Grief:
Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington D.C.: Hospice Foundation of
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 36. Helping Children After a Disaster. Updated
March 2000. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/disaster.htm.
National Institute of Mental Health.
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. Available
and teens grieve differently than adults, their needs, especially support
through the grieving process, are often overlooked. Consequently, children
and teens are frequently forgotten, even invalidated, as mourners.